Does Premium Vodka's Taste Live Up to Its Price Tag?

"20/20" puts vodka snobs to the test. Can they taste a difference in price?

February 6, 2009, 8:19 PM

May 24, 2007 — -- Are you a vodka snob? Do you routinely buy a pricey brand over a less expensive one? If so, you're part of a growing trend. "20/20" wanted to see what all the fuss was about … so we conducted a little test.

It's 6:30 p.m. in New York City's Times Square, typically happy hour, but not for our six subjects, who were all part of a little experiment conducted in the summer of 2005. The participants ranged in age from 21 to 40 years old, the prime cocktail-drinking demographic.

The laboratory was a popular restaurant and bar called Blue Fin. But instead of beakers and petri dishes, the chemicals we tested were found inside bottles -- six vodka bottles.

Why was vodka the drink of choice for our subjects? One participant, Trevor Freeland, responded, "It's simple, it pleases a lot of people." Michael Gurock added: "I never feel like I have a bad hangover the next day whenever I have vodka." And Melanie Weber said she chose it because "it can be mixed with a lot of different juices."

If you've been to a bar recently, you know that once lowly vodka — invented on the cheap in Russia — is now the most popular hard liquor in America, comprising 27 percent of total volume in 2006, easily outselling rum, gin, whiskey and tequila.

What's most striking about vodka's rise is the huge sales of so-called super-premium brands, up 38 percent in the past year. You'll know them by their remarkable bottles (one -- Wyborowa -- is designed by architect Frank Gehry) and by their even more remarkable prices: $30 to $60 and upward a bottle, up to four times the price of cheaper brands like Smirnoff, which sells for $13 a bottle.

Taste test participant Karen Kay told us she can perceive differences among brands. "With the lower-end vodkas I think I really taste a difference in the drink, like an aftertaste, almost," she said.

What are their favorite brands? Weber preferred Ketel One. Freeland liked Belvedere best. And the remaining four favored Grey Goose.

Vodka arrived in the United States during World War II, but didn't start really gaining popularity until the 1960s, thanks in part to James Bond. It was 007 in the 1962 movie "Dr. No" who started a trend: "One medium dried vodka martini, shaken, not stirred." Bond insisted his martinis be made with vodka, not gin.

The HBO television show "Sex and the City" propelled vodka to new heights with ubiquitous cosmopolitan cocktails. America's foremost mixologist Dale DeGroff (who tended bar at New York City's famous Rainbow Room) has made mixing cosmos into something of an art form.

"The cocktail is an icon," said DeGroff, "and the vodka cocktail is the top of the pyramid of that icon."

And no vodka brand has made a bigger splash than the $30 a bottle super-premium brand Grey Goose. A Grey Goose commercial says it is "rated the best-tasting vodka in the world."

A little strange, given that the U.S. government's definition of vodka, said DeGroff, is: "Tasteless, odorless, colorless … You are buying the bottle. You're buying the sexiness. You're buying the whole package."

Which brings us back to our little experiment. Can people really tell the difference in taste between the expensive and cheaper vodkas? Our blind vodka taste tests were conducted by Eben Klemm, the director of cocktail development for B.R. Guest, a chain of upscale restaurants.

Klemm instructed the testers to "sniff through them first to sort of calibrate your nose a little bit."

The taste test included five super-premium vodkas (Ketel One, Belvedere, Hangar One, Stoli Elit and Grey Goose) and one economy brand (Smirnoff).

Most of the testers thought they would be able to recognize their favorite brands, which didn't surprise Klemm. "Everyone's a snob about their brands," he said. "I mean, they've built their whole nightlife identity on which brands they are -- whether they're a 'Belvedere man' or a 'Grey Goose woman.'"

The first test involved tasting the vodkas "neat," which means straight and at room temperature.

Kay thought vodka No. 1 tasted "very spicy. It burns the tongue." Gurock said vodka No. 2 "was very light, it went down beautifully." Gliksman thought vodka No. 3 "has a really nice aroma." And Glenn McGinness said, "I'm guessing that five is the Grey Goose."

After a half hour of sniffing and sipping, five of the six testers agreed on one thing: They all hated vodka No. 1.

Freeland described it as "kind of thick and not smooth at all. Something I would never ever buy." Kay called it her "least favorite one, for sure."

Finally, the moment of truth. Klemm revealed that vodka No. 1 -- the group's least favorite -- was Grey Goose. Everyone was flabbergasted.

"No way!!!" said Freeland.

"I can't believe that!" exclaimed Kay. "I mean I'm really very loyal to it. And I just totally dismissed it."

"I'm shocked," said Gliksman. "I really am shocked, because it was bad."

"I guess that says something about the marketing then, doesn't it?" said DeGroff. "They're not relying heavily on their taste buds. They're relying more heavily on the perceived value, or the status."

There wasn't a hands-down favorite vodka for the testers, but two did stand out: Hangar One at $35 a bottle and Belvedere at $32 a bottle.

What would happen if we added a mixer to the vodka test? What percentage of people prefer vodka as a mixed drink, rather than straight?

According to DeGroff, everybody drinks it mixed. "How many people do you know that drinks straight vodka? Very, very few," he said.

So we did a second test mixing the same six vodkas into cosmopolitans: 3 parts vodka; 1 part triple sec, lime juice, and cranberry juice.

Klemm told the testers, "I want you all to see whether you can pick out nuances."

It turns out that the testers had a tough time distinguishing between cosmos made with the $62 Stoli Elit and cosmos made with the $13 Smirnoff.

McGinness said that he "found them very similar," and wasn't able to pick out his beloved Grey Goose.

"The distinctions are not as … definitive," said Freeland. "They're not as obvious."

So will these test subjects change their drink of choice?

Kay said, "I'm going to be experimenting a lot at the bar next time I go, because I came in having one favorite, I chose a different one for the neat, and I chose another one for the cosmopolitan. So … I guess that means I'm not going to be as loyal to the brand as I used to be."

So, if you're looking to save some money the next time you saunter up to the bar, save a few bucks and order the house vodka instead of your favorite super-premium.